One bedtime, Maya Stiefel was angry at her father. “Let’s return him to the daddy depot,” she told her mother, Chana.
Chana spun out a story in which they did just that.
And after the story was told and the lights were out, Chana ran to her desk and typed out the first draft of “Daddy Depot,” which is being published next week.
Ms. Stiefel already had written many children’s books, non-fiction works including “Lives of Stars” and “Without Warning: Earthquakes” and “Turkeys on the Family Farm.”
How long could it take her to publish her first a picture book?
Eight years, as it turned out.
Maya was 9 the night she was angry at her father. She is 16 now.
There was a lot that Ms. Stiefel had to learn about writing a picture book. Things that weren’t part of the curriculum at NYU Journalism School, where she studied science reporting, or her on-the-job training in writing for children at Scholastic’s Science World magazine, her first job. (Now she is director of public relations at Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls in Teaneck, where she lives.)
So she set out to learn how to write a picture book. She went to workshops, and joined a critique group and the society of children’s writers and illustrators.
“I began taking the writing very seriously,” she said. “Picture books are an art form, and much more complex than people think. It’s almost like writing a novel in 400 words. You need a main character. You need the character to have a conflict or problem. The problem has to escalate. The character goes on a journey. The character has some flaws and has to resolve them. There’s a crescendo, and then a resolution.
“That’s a lot of elements of fiction in one very short narrative text,” she said. “You need to know your story and need to be able to tell it in very few words. I always loved picture books but didn’t realize how hard it would be.”
The hard work paid off. She pitched the story to an agent at a conference and he sold it to an imprint of Macmillan. The publisher hired the illustrator, Andy Snair.
“When you write a picture book you have to leave a lot of room for the illustrations,” Ms. Stiefel said. “You imagine the story in your own way and hand it over to an artist who might envision it in a completely different way.”
Her book, she said, is about “flawed parents, and about a little girl who is taking charge of her problem. Her problem is that she’s upset with her dad because he gets distracted by football and tells bad jokes and falls asleep during story time.”
“The story is pretty much based on my husband, Larry, who I wouldn’t return,” Ms. Stiefel said. “He’s a very good father.
“It ultimately has a happy ending. The idea of the story is that none of us are perfect parents. We all have our flaws. It’s about unconditional love. You might think someone else has a better family, but the perfect dad for you is the one you have. In most cases.
“Most kids, at some point in their lives, realize their parents are not perfect — but they’re a perfect parent for them.
“The book is also a spoof of our consumer culture, where you can return anything. If you can return your shoes, why can’t you return your parents?
“Kids reading the book will have fun going up and down the aisle with Lizzie, looking at different dads. Lizzie meets a rocker dad, a chef dad, and an astronaut dad. She realizes they’re not perfect either. She starts to appreciate all the qualities of her own dad. It all works out okay.”
Ms. Stiefel has a second picture book, coming out in 2019.
It’s called “Waka Waka Loch,” it’s about a cave girl, and it’s based on Ms. Steifel’s own experience.
“It’s about a girl who wants to change her name that no one can pronounce,” Ms. Steifel said. “Her name is Waka Waka Loch and she wants to change it to Gloop. The original story was about a girl named Chana, who was upset that she had a name no one could pronounce.”
Often, when people who are unfamiliar with the Hebrew name Chana try to pronounce it, she said, it can come out garbled, sounding like China with a different vowel, or like Tsheina or Kehana.
In the first draft, Chana’s grandmother tells her that she was named for her great grandmother Chana, and tells the younger Chana about her great grandmother.
Ms. Stiefel’s critique group didn’t like that.
“The problem is that Chana didn’t solver her own problem,” she said. “The protagonist in a children’s book should solve her own problem. I was stuck, and kept trying to find ways for Chana to solve her own problem. I read that if you’re stuck in a story, try throwing your character in a strange setting.
“I was hiking with my husband in these rocks in Canada. I said, ‘What if she’s a cave girl?’
“Putting her in a new setting created a lot of humor. And I found a way for the cave girl to solve the problem. She looks at cave paintings of her great grandmother — Waka Waka Loch — saving the tribe from a melting ice bridge and a saber tooth tiger.”
Ms. Steifel said that her name started out as Cheryl. “My grandmother called me Chana, and it stuck. When I officially made my name Chana, the judge asked me why I would change my name to Tshana.”
She said she expects the book to appeal to all the Yechezkels and Chayas in the Jewish world, and plenty of other children beyond.
“Across cultures there are names that are hard to pronounce,” she said.